“You won’t be able to
get inside the second ring road,” the taxi driver had told me last night when I asked him about the traffic restrictions
in Beijing today. Not easily put off, I decided that the best way to get close to the National Day celebrations would
be to cycle in to the city. My objective was to get close enough to Tiananmen – the geographic and spiritual heart
of the occasion – to be able to take a photo of the national flag. This, as it turned out, was easier said
day had begun inauspiciously with a thick blanket of smog that hung around until about 9am. At 8am, I had set off on a wet and
very muddy road – the reported “seeding” of the clouds with silver iodine, to induce rain and thereby clear
the atmosphere of pollution, had had at least some effect. Then, as I neared the city, the veil of low cloud quickly evaporated and, incredibly,
for the first time in many days, the sun began to shine brightly – no doubt much to the relief of the people who had
been given the task of delivering a “blue sky” national day.
At 8.45am I was within the second ring road
(using a small pedestrian tunnel just in case). Then, after 10 minutes, I hit the first serious road block. Each intersection was guarded by the
police; and each hutong (small lane) was blocked by two or more civilian volunteers, sporting red arm bands, and sitting on small stools. It took me twenty
minutes or so of cycling up and down the road before I found a small alleyway that was poorly guarded. The volunteers, all five of them,
were busy telling an elderly man that he couldn’t deliver the boxes that were on the back of his
tricycle. I raced through the opening that I had spotted and within seconds had taken a sharp right down a narrow lane. After a series of
twists and turns, the alleyway joined a wider road and, heading west, I was sure I was within the first security ring.
The second cordon was harder to negotiate, but after thirty minutes or so of searching for
the right moment, I at last found a breach in the defences, and was through – and within a stone’s throw of Dongchang’an
Jie – the avenue that runs east of Tiananmen and from where Hu Jintao was to begin his inspection of the troops. But the security
here was at a different level, so I decided to quit while I was ahead and parked my bike outside a restaurant that was close
to the junction with Nanchizi Dajie, at the south-eastern tip of The Forbidden City. Here was parked the coaches that had carried
the VIPs with tickets for the East Grandstand.
A small restaurant, close to the junction, was doing a roaring trade. Groups of soldiers, rotating every
30 minutes, were dropping in for their meal break. I parked myself at a table at the back and watched them watching the ceremony on
the restaurant's small TV. Jiang Zemin, the former president, who retains a good degree of influence, was as popular with the soldiers
as he was with CCTV, whose cameramen seemed to be torn between following him and following his successor. The giant portrait
of Deng Xiaoping being carried aloft was also well received; as was the lofted portrait of The Great Helmsman himself, Mao
Mao had proclaimed the founding of the People’s
Republic of China in front of a crowd that was reported to be in the region of 300,000 people (at the time, urban Beijing’s
population was only 1.65 million). 60 years on and, ironically, Beijingers – other than the lucky few who made it on to the
guest list – can only watch from their armchairs.
it was time for the air show. This, at last, was something I could watch live. And what a show it was. Formation after formation of the air force’s
most advanced aircraft blazed a red, yellow, and blue (not sure why blue) trail across Beijing’s azure sky. The crowd around
me were ecstatic; pointing whatever lens they had skywards.
Never have so many Nokias been trained on one single event I mused.
From here, I moved on to my next challenge, crossing
a deserted Jianguomen, and thanks to the directions of a man on a child’s scooter, managed to cycle close enough to
Tiananmen to complete my photo-challenge (see above). “What do you think about today,” I asked him. “Wonderful,” he said,
“Beijing has never been so quiet”.
I then spent a couple of hours trying to penetrate the
inner cordon; without success, but it was fun trying. I cycled up to at least a dozen checkpoints in the alleyways south of the
Square. Here, though, they were manned by soldiers not citizen volunteers.
Well satisfied, I beat a tactical retreat and headed to an Irish pub to watch the evening’s
show and fireworks display on CCTV, and to sort out 60 photos (among the several hundred that I have taken) to post
to Flickr to mark my participation, albeit on the fringes, of a momentous day in China’s history.
what does the event mean to the man or woman in the street?
Clearly, there is a groundswell of national pride and a feeling that
China has come a very long way in a relatively short period of time.
60 years ago, Mao said that the Chinese nation had stood up. Today there
is a palpable sense that it is walking briskly with its head held high.